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Airline credit cards
Compare more than a dozen cards that earn reward flights and offer valuable airline perks.
Compare airline credit cards
Many airlines offer cobranded credit cards with airline-specific perks. If you fly with different carriers, you might like a general travel card instead. To compare cards, use the table and click "Show Filters" to browse options with specific features you're looking for.
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Let’s break down how airline credit cards work
An airline credit card typically offers rewards for airline purchases, usually in the form of airline miles. You can redeem these miles on flights or other related purchases, such as seat upgrades.
Airline cards tend to come in two varieties: cobranded cards that are associated with a specific airline, and general airline cards. A cobranded card usually offers more perks or earning potential for that specific airline, which can play a significant role in how you pick an airline card.
Compare & apply for a card
Look at cobranded and general airline cards that fit your airline preferences and apply like normal.
Once you receive your card, use it on categories that earn you the most miles. Cobranded cards tend to reward the most miles for purchases made with that specific airline.
Once you’ve earned enough miles for a flight, you can book one through your credit card account or the frequent flyer program associated with your credit card.
How to compare airline credit cards
Aside from the card’s APR, here are a few important features to compare when selecting an airline rewards credit card:
- Airline. If you prefer flying a certain airline, look for a cobranded card that offers rewards specific to that company. Otherwise, a general travel card can help you earn on all airlines.
- Annual fee. Airline credit cards often feature annual fees to offset the various perks they offer.
- Signup bonus. Many airline cards offer a mileage signup bonus when you spend within the set requirements. This bonus can easily pay for a roundtrip flight, depending on your destination and class.
- Earning categories. Cobranded cards tend to earn the most miles on purchases associated with that airline. If you plan on using your card for day-to-day purchases, consider a card that earns miles on those purchases.
- Perks. Both types of travel cards can offer a variety of perks, including free breakfast, upgraded rooms, statement credits or concierge service access.
- Foreign transaction fees. Many airline cards forgo foreign transaction fees, though that’s not a guarantee. Make sure to check if you plan on using your card abroad.’
Pick a cobranded airline card if you fly just one airline
You have two overarching choices for an airline credit card: a cobranded card or a general airline card. Here’s the quick rundown on the major differences.
You can read more about the differences between each card and which you should choose at our full cobranded card guide.
Compare credit cards by credit score and card type
Pros and cons of airline credit cards
- Earn big miles on airline purchases. Airline cards let you earn better than average rewards on airline purchases. You can redeem these rewards on flights, upgrades and more.
- Airline perks. Many airline credit cards come with airline specific perks, such as free checked bags or airport lounge access.
- Earn award flights without airline spending. Some airline cards let you earn miles while spending on everyday purchases such as groceries.
- Can be expensive. Many of the best airline cards come with large annual fees. You’ll need to make sure you use your card enough to offset this annual fee.
- Redemption options can be limited. Depending on the card, you might have fewer redemption options for your rewards than you’d have with a general travel card.
When is an airline credit card worth it?
An airline credit card isn’t worth it for every traveler. At the very least, the airline card’s value has to at least offset the cost of the card’s annual fee. Here’s a quick breakdown of when you should get one and when you should look for another type of card.
Get an airline credit card if…
- You favor a specific airline. If you prefer a specific airline over others, you might be an ideal candidate for a cobranded airline card. These cards tend to have more generous perks and rewards than general airline cards.
- You travel heavy. If you’re always checking bags when you fly, an airline credit card can save you hundreds of dollars over the years.
- You don’t want other rewards. An airline credit card is a better pick than a general travel card if you plan on only reinvesting your rewards back into travel.
- You’re interested in elite status. Some airline credit cards can help you reach the next tier of an airline’s elite program faster.
- You want a companion pass. Many of the best airline cards available offer companion passes, either as a welcome offer or on each card anniversary. These passes are worth hundreds of dollars.
Get something else if…
- You don’t travel often. A card with all manner of perks isn’t worth it if you don’t use that card on a regular basis – especially if the card comes with an annual fee.
- You often stay at hotels. If you spend just as much time at hotels as you do in the air, you might benefit more from a general travel card.
What are the benefits of Global Entry and TSA PreCheck?
Global Entry and TSA PreCheck are traveler’s programs that help you pass airport security or customs at specialized lanes. Because of that, you can save an average of 30 minutes on every airport that supports these programs.
What’s the difference between Global Entry and TSA PreCheck?
Each program typically gets you through an airport line quicker. Global Entry is for international travelers re-entering the US going through customs, and TSA PreCheck is for domestic travelers going through airport security.
A Global Entry application costs $100, and a TSA PreCheck application costs $85. But with Global Entry, you also get TSA PreCheck. Both memberships last five years.
How often do you get free Global Entry and TSA PreCheck with your card?
This depends on your card. Some cards give you the credit every four years, while others offer the credit every five years. In American Express’ case, you might even get a credit every four and a half years.
You might want the credit every four years so you can renew Global Entry or TSA PreCheck membership well before it expires.
Here are a few cards that offer the Global Entry/TSA PreCheck statement credit, and how often you can get the credit.
|Card||How often you get the Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credit|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve®||4 years|
|Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card||$100 Global Entry credit every 4 years; TSA PreCheck credit every 4.5 years|
|Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card||4 years|
|Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Credit Card||4 years|
|United℠ Explorer Card||4 years|
|PenFed Pathfinder® Rewards Visa Signature® Card||5 years|
Ask the experts
- Jennifer Burton
- Assistant Professor of Marketing
- Sykes College of Business
How are the number of miles required for a flight determined?
Frequent flier miles are a loyalty program perk offered by many airlines to influence a consumer’s decision to fly a particular airline over another so that they can accumulate enough points/miles to be awarded a free seat upgrade, free domestic flight or free international flight. The number of miles awarded for these perks is based on the average cost to the airline to deliver customers from point A to point B, as well as the perceived value of these perks to the average customer.
Airlines also sell the ability to accumulate miles to partner companies to award to their customer base as well. Typically, airlines will award free domestic tickets to passengers after accumulating approximately 15,000 airline miles and free international tickets to passengers after accumulating 40,000 airline miles.
Perceived value for these items typically runs between approximately 2.3 cents per mile for domestic flights and 3.8 cents per mile for international flights. However, what you get for these perks normally equates to 1 cents per mile for domestic flights and 2 cents per mile for international flights. So the airlines are still making money off these “perks.”
- Eric Van Steenburg
- Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Marketing
- Montana State University
What makes for a good rewards program?
One should consider it from both the consumers’ and the brands’ perspectives.
From the brands’ perspective, the most important element in co-branding is that it must be of equal value to each participant. That is, an airline and a credit card company or bank must derive equal benefits from the relationship. For airline credit cards, the card supplier benefits from income it receives in the form of service charges levied on the vendor where the consumer uses the credit card, interest assessments added to a statement when the user doesn’t pay the card in full each month, as well as fees it charges to the consumer to use the card on an annual basis. For the airlines, they benefit from the fact that most people will purchase an additional ticket or tickets when they travel, thus increasing the carrier’s income for the flight, as well as fees for items such as extra bags being checked or seat upgrades that traveler chooses.
- Mark S. Rosenbaum
- Professor and Department Chair
- University of South Carolina
What is the best way to redeem credit card miles?
Customers should redeem miles when doing so will help them realize value. For example, let’s say that a customer would like to travel to Mexico and is uneasy about spending money on a hotel room. If using miles will change a customer’s view of value to the extent that the purchase has more benefits than costs, then customers should redeem miles. Don’t use miles for routine purchases which already are seen in a favorable light, rather, use miles for purchases that need a dose of extra value.
- Abhijit Roy
- Professor of Marketing at the Kania School of Management
- University of Scranton
When is an airline credit card worth it?
The travel card is only worth if the benefits exceed the costs of having one. If one ends up paying a high yearly annual fee (over $100) or high interest rates on balances, it is worth considering whether the annual benefits exceed the cost of having the card. Customers should in advance whether it is easy to redeem the rewards (fewer blackout dates and restrictions on destinations).
If one travels often, and usually with the same airline, and like the perks of checking free bags, priority boarding or free nights at a hotel, an airline card issued by a specific brand may be the better option. On the other hand, if someone values generic rewards, and don’t like to be tied to specific airlines, hotel chains or car rental agencies, a general travel rewards card may be the better alternative.
- Ryan S. Eanes
- Ph.D., PRC – Assistant Professor
- Temple University
Is it worth signing up for an airline credit card on the plane, or are you better off waiting for another time?
Airline passengers are already at something of a loss when it comes to things to occupy their attention, and the airlines know this… I would not recommend applying for an airline card “in flight” to the casual air traveler who doesn’t fly more than a couple of times a year–if you’re interested in a “miles” card, I strongly suggest doing your homework and searching for an offer when you have time to compare the many available options.
- Paul Rose
- PhD Interim Dean
- Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
How should a consumer choose between cards offering points, miles, or cashback?
Choosing wisely between cards with different kinds of rewards is difficult to do unless a consumer thoroughly understands their own spending patterns. It is easier than ever for people to track and analyze their expenses through free or low-cost apps. Once a consumer understands their spending and has considered any changes they want to make, they are in a much better position to choose a card that will be maximally rewarding.
- Steven Brown
- Professor Emeritus of Marketing
- Bauer College of Business, University of Houston
How can consumers get the most value when redeeming credit card points or miles?
Consumers should carefully consider which card offers most of what they value most for the long term. Setting goals for valued rewards that may take a while to earn (e.g., round trip business class to an international destination) helps. Understanding when and how an airline of choice offers lower reward thresholds can result in valued rewards for fewer points. For example, United has an infrequently used classification that makes business class available for a fraction of the usual number of miles, but you need to be either lucky or smart to find a flight on which it’s available, and you need to plan and do your search well ahead of your travel time.
Airline credit cards are your go-to travel choice if you prefer sticking with a single airline during your travels, often offering bigger earnings on airline purchases than general travel cards. But if you’re not committed to a single airline, a general travel card can offer you more flexibility in how you earn and use your points.
Not sure if an airline card is right for you? Check out our guide to travel credit cards for more options.
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